Mary Ellen Chase’s novel “Mary Peters” begins with the 9-year-old Mary Peters looking out on the gleaming white port of Cadiz, Spain. But the real subject of this reissued 1934 novel (Islandport Press, $15.95, 2005) lies on the other side of the Atlantic, in the changes experienced along the Maine coast as the 19th century slipped into the 20th.
Mary Peters’ father captained a ship that sailed the globe. Unwilling to wait at home while her husband plied the seas, Mary’s mother, Sarah, raised her two children aboard, “and grew inured to what would have caused righteous horror in her friends at home” – or anywhere else, for that matter. There were the letters she wrote to the families of sailors who died onboard, and the time Sarah pulled a hatchet from a man’s back after an attempt at mutiny.
The ocean is a cruel life. By the time Mary is thinking of completing her education at an academy onshore, circumstances drive the family to a coastal Maine town similar to Blue Hill where the author was raised, also at the turn of the century.
“Mary Peters” is equally the story of a changing Maine and a changed child, raised in a world “in which men and women and even children bridged the Seven Seas in their thoughts.” One hundred years later, at the turn of yet another century, the remnants of this change are still with us, which is perhaps why Dean Lawrence Lunt, publisher of Islandport Press, has decided to reissue the book, along with the second volume in what became known as Chase’s Maine novels, “Silas Crockett,” originally published in 1935, but reprinted by Islandport in 2003. A third book, “Windswept,” will be released by Islandport in December, and Lunt has rights to one more Maine novel, “Edge of Darkness,” which will be released in another year. Chase spent much of her life away from Maine, receiving a doctorate in English literature from the University of Minnesota, then teaching literature at Smith College for nearly 30 years.
The girl Mary is serious, thoughtful, as internally passionate as she is externally contained. Speaking of the relationship between Mary and her mother, Chase writes, “There was an understanding between them, which, perhaps by its very existence, made them uncommunicative. Their rare moments of confidence were awkward, even painful, and neither encouraged them. But each cultivated toward the other a courtesy bred of affection and a quick sensitiveness to the other’s thoughts and feelings.”
Born into seafaring families, Mary and Sarah are quite similar in both their reticence and their wisdom. But whereas Sarah lived most of her life in the traditions of her ancestry, the world to which Mary came of age was one in which the children of sea captains served the summer families of Boston and New York.
The tragedy underlying this change is a major theme of this novel, and yet the mournfulness is abetted by the character of its observers. There is a certain spiritual composure to both Sarah and Mary, an inner strength that is born of people whose lives depend upon riding any kind of wave – whether it be that of the oceans or the seasons – the farmer, the sailor, the woodsman. It is in understanding the forces of nature, not just the forces of life, and certainly not the vagaries of culture, that brings these two women an almost otherworldly acceptance of others.
As Sarah’s oldest son struggles in a difficult marriage, Chase writes, “Sarah Peters might have worried … had worry not left her long ago. In its place had come a pity for a certain seemingly inevitable unkindness in things themselves, a certain necessary sorrow and desolation in the circumstances of human existence, in the very manner by which men through some mischance had from the beginning lived their lives.”
When “Mary Peters” was first published, in 1934, the equanimity of the two central women was similarly striking to The New York Times reviewer. The unnamed critic wrote, “Not the surface movements of the human sea interest Miss Chase; she would plumb the depths, rather – discover the forces which compel the surface waters to move thus and so. Consequently, ‘Mary Peters’ becomes a novel of human forces; there are depths not immediately discernible, powers not instantly gauged.”
In 1934, the reviewer complained that some of this depth of awareness and acceptance comes at the expense of action. But today, 70-odd years later, the approach seems like a necessity. Like Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Country of the Pointed Firs,” “Mary Peters” reveals the slow but deeply textured life in which the activity of earth and sky and ocean are characters as dramatically present as any neighbor or family member. Even the descriptions of farmland and farmhouses as they expand or weather to the ground, have a sense of action. We know those houses, can sometimes see remnants of their farms, and crave to know their story. With sad, beautiful serenity, “Mary Peters” offers both benediction and requiem.
“Mary Peters,” by Mary Ellen Chase, was released again last year by Islandport Press in Yarmouth.